Monday, July 25, 2022

The SABC cans Special Assignment on SABC3 after 24 years with SABC News claiming 'loss of audience' as the cause of its cancellation.

by Thinus Ferreira

The SABC has decided to cancel the public broadcaster's long-running weekly Special Assignment investigative magazine programme on SABC3 after 24 years, blaming low TV ratings, with the last episode which will be next Tuesday night 2 August.

Special Assignment's viewership drop on SABC3 is however not unique, with the whole of SABC3's programming schedule struggling extremely in the South African TV ratings race.

SABC3 is the SABC TV channel suffering the lowest ratings of the public broadcaster's three major TV channels, with SABC3 also being affected the most by the government and Sentech's switch-off of analogue TV signal transmitters in the switch to digital terrestrial television (DTT).

SABC3 and the SABC News division responsible for producing the show, moved Special Assignment across multiple days and timeslots over the last decade, constantly forcing potential audiences to try and find and adjust to new days and timeslots if they wanted to watch the show and often pre-empting episodes for sudden sport coverage and other broadcasts.

Special Assignment's timeslot will be replaced with a shortened version of the longer SABC News (DStv 404) channel's studio-based programme, It's Topical, while SABC News and SABC3 consider the option of a new investigative magazine show for the public broadcaster.

Special Assignment that started in August 1998 has been competing over decades in the investigative television journalism space with's 3rd Degree hosted by Debora Patta and later Checkpoint with Nkepile Mabuse, as well as Devi fronted by Devi Sankaree Govender also on and eNCA (DStv 403); and the long-running Carte Blanche on M-Net (DStv 101) from Combined Artistic Productions.

The SABC used the chaotic and disorganised behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the broadcast of an episode of Special Assignment on 14 September 2021 about the towtruck-industry which should still have been held back by the broadcaster following a court interdict, as evidence to get rid of the former SABC News boss Phathiswa Magopeni, arguing that she was responsible for not preventing the episode from being aired and negligent.

Special Assignment executive producer Busisiwe Ntuli who testified in Phathiswa Magopeni's disciplinary hearing, supported her, saying the mistake of airing the episode was not the news division or Special Assignment's fault but due to an issue with the original and replacement programme codes being similar which is the responsibility of the SABC's video entertainment department.

Phathiswa Magopeni said that the SABC used the Special Assignment issue to "hound" her out of the public broadcaster.

About Special Assignment's abrupt cancellation, Moshoeshoe Monare, SABC News boss, told staff in a letter that the show is now getting axed because Special Assignment "has lost its mojo and signature influence, with the consequential effects being loss of audience". 

It's not clear why the SABC and SABC News which has a public mandate to produce news, current affairs and investigative programming is citing low ratings as a reason for cancellation since the South Africa public broadcaster is compelled to do news and current affairs programming irrespective of the influences of commercial and financial pressure and ratings.

Ndindi Cola, SABC spokesperson, didn't respond to a media query made last week about the canning of Special Assignment and questions around it, including what will be happening to staff who have been working on the show.